Pinch, swipe and pilfer: be your own crow – Billie Livingston

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By Billie Livingston

Now and then I am invited to universities to talk to creative writing students (Which is fiendishly ironic when you realize that my own formal education stopped at my high school graduation) and one question that frequently pops up is “Do you have any tips for writing strong dialogue?” And to that I say, “Be your own crow.” ♥

Budd Schulberg once remarked, “One thing you do in writing dialogue is that you make up as little of it as you can and you listen as much as you can.”

After a 1998 screening of his Oscar-winning film, On the Waterfront, Schulberg commented on how much of his script had come directly from the mouths of the longshoremen he’d met in waterfront bars. “When Charlie gets killed,” Schullberg said, “the ordinary cliché for Terry would be ‘I’ll get ‘em’ or ‘I’ll kill ‘em’ or something like that, but I actually heard a longshoreman say ‘I’ll take it out of their skulls!’ And it just rang a bell, a loud bell, that that’s the line I should use.”

In other words, Schullberg wanted three-dimensional human beings rather than easy-to-dismiss blue-collar rough necks. To do that he used his crow brain — or at least that’s what I call it. I often refer to my own propensity to swipe the words out of strangers’ mouths as “my crow brain.” My friends and family have come to accept that they may see their considerations and opinions later in print — some of them even like it. Because they get it: To be a writer, you’ve got to be part crow.

CrookedHeartOfMercy pbCrows are known thieves. They swipe the sparkly things, the tasty things, the things that will line their nests and fill their bellies. It’s the way of the crow and, frankly, I think any crow you meet on the corner would agree.

The toughest thing for a writer is: How do I make my characters breathe and bleed in a way that makes the reader believe in them? One way is this: Get out in the world and listen. Eavesdrop. If you open up to the people around you, you’ll hear lines of dialogue that illustrate a way of thinking, a personal history that says far more about the speaker than you could spell out in a thousand words of description.

In my new novel, The Crooked Heart of Mercy, I had a couple of scenes involving spiritualists and mediums — people who believe that they talk to the dead. In the midst of writing, an acquaintance offered me some articles he had on mediums. I was grateful for the offer but why read an article when you can get your butt in a pew at The Church of Spiritualism and listen?

I went to several spiritualist meetings. The songs, the prayers, the messages from the dead! I heard the sweat and tears and longing laid bare. And like any crow worth his salt, I took it.

And you should too. Take the shiny stuff, take the stuff that rings that bell —Be your own crow.

Billie Livingston is the award-winning author of three novels, a collection of short stories, and a poetry collection. Her most recent novel, One Good Hustle, a Globe and Mail Best Book selection, was nominated for the Giller Prize and for the Canadian Library Association’s Young Adult Book Award. She lives in Vancouver, British Columbia.

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